Sunday, March 13, 2005
Knowledge blooms in sunshine, not shadow
"Sunshine is the best disinfectant."
We take those words of Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis seriously around here; in fact, we're probably obsessed by them. That's because the sunshine concept underscores a central tenet of good journalism: Our world is better off when facts are known, information flows freely and the sunshine of openness dispels the darkness of secrecy.
Citizens, we think, make better decisions when they are fully and fairly informed, and the newspaper's job is to help make that happen.
Today marks the launch of Sunshine Week, a nationwide effort of news outlets to bring attention to the importance of open-government initiatives as a way to keep the public better informed.
Much of that effort revolves around proposals to strengthen freedom of information laws, tools vital to keep government open.
These laws, unfortunately, are increasingly marked by loopholes and limitations that foster excessive government secrecy, and that's not a good trend.
This week we plan to publish a fascinating and somewhat troubling story about how some local governments are failing to preserve official e-mails, a key form of communication that can shed much light on public matters.
Reporter Tonia Moxley tackled this story after her freedom of information request unearthed an official e-mail that spelled out details for a proposed mega-mall in the heart of Blacksburg.
While the town had failed to save e-mails, Moxley was lucky because a councilman had retained his copy. That fact led her and other reporters to ask questions about e-mail preservation in other localities across Southwest Virginia.
The story speaks to the importance of sunlight in government, a metaphor that also applies to a recent front-page story about a Roanoke white supremacist who applauded the murder of a federal judge in Illinois.
Some readers were upset, claiming that the newspaper was promoting his racist views and irresponsibly giving him a megaphone to spew his hatred. Some were also more than a bit embarrassed that he sullied Roanoke's image.
While I understand the chagrin, we were neither promoting nor endorsing his views; rather, we were shining a light on someone whose rhetoric was a cause of concern.
We pursued this story because The New York Times had already quoted him on the judge's killing, which immediately raised his national profile and prompted us to look again at him. In retrospect, we should have made that point clear in our story.
In this case and others, public scrutiny, or the disinfectant of sunshine, is preferable to letting such beliefs thrive in the darkness.
A final note: Next Sunday we'll publish the first in a series of articles on plans for a bold, new art museum slated for downtown Roanoke.
We're glad museum leaders have opted for sunshine by talking to the general public about their plans, and we encourage them to talk more openly about all aspects of a project that has the potential to transform Roanoke and this region.